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“He Has A Chance To Make History”: Could Americans Elect A Non-Religious President? Bernie Sanders Wants To Find Out

Right now, Marco Rubio is basically telling voters to choose him because he’s the most religious of the candidates. Ted Cruz is praying with voters. Mike Huckabee’s supporters are running ads saying not to vote for Cruz because he might not be a sincere Christian. Donald Trump is picking up surprising support from evangelicals.

Yet over on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders might just be the first serious contender for a major-party nomination in modern times who is openly not religious — which would be the most significant religious development of this campaign.

Are Americans ready to elect someone who doesn’t even pretend to be religious to the White House? Maybe not yet — but if the country’s religious landscape keeps changing the way it has been, it could happen before long.

Mostly because Sanders is a Democrat (more on that in a bit), the question of his religious beliefs hasn’t gotten much attention up to now. This is from an article in today’s Post:

But as an adult, Sanders drifted away from Jewish customs. And as his bid for the White House gains momentum, he has the chance to make history. Not just as the first Jewish president — but as one of the few modern presidents to present himself as not religious.

“I am not actively involved with organized religion,” Sanders said in a recent interview.

Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner.

“I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

Sanders doesn’t talk about this a lot, so we have to do some inferring about the substance of his beliefs. But what we can say is that the way he describes his conception of God — as a connection that exists between people and other living things — is most definitely not the conception of either the faith he was born in or of Christianity, the dominant faith among Americans. Those monotheistic religions (as well as others) see God as something external, a being with its own intentions, ideas, and decisions. Sanders can call his idea “God,” but a close reading suggests that he could be the first president in American history not to profess a belief in the kind of God most Americans worship. (There have been presidents, including Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who were accused by their opponents of being atheists, but whatever they privately believed, in their public statements they spoke about God in familiar terms.)

To be clear, I don’t think Sanders’s thoughts about metaphysics should play much of a role in whether anyone votes for him or against him. I’ve long argued that voters should care about the substance of a candidate’s religious beliefs in proportion to the amount the candidate claims those beliefs will influence his or her behavior in office. Sanders isn’t arguing that his ideas about God will determine what course he pursues on Wall Street regulation, so those ideas aren’t particularly relevant. On the other hand, when Marco Rubio says, “I do think it’s important for our president to be someone who is influenced by their faith, especially if it’s Christianity,” then we should know exactly what his faith consists of and how he sees that influence manifesting itself.

At the same time, we should acknowledge that finding a candidate who shares your religious beliefs is one of the worst ways to make your choice, no matter what your beliefs are. If you’re an evangelical Christian, for instance, you probably love Ronald Reagan, who seldom went to church, and you probably dislike the only evangelical Christian ever elected president, Jimmy Carter. (Contrary to popular belief, George W. Bush is not an evangelical; he’s a Methodist, just like Hillary Clinton.) Pick the president you most revere and the one you most despise, and both at least professed to be believing Christians. So as a tool to predict the content of a presidency, which box the candidate checks isn’t much use.

Nevertheless, it’s long been true that Americans say they won’t vote for someone who doesn’t believe in God. Yet that’s now changing. According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, 51 percent of Americans say they’d be less likely to vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. That’s larger than the figure for a Muslim (42 percent), someone who had had an extramarital affair (37 percent), or a gay candidate (26 percent). But it’s also a decline of 12 points from 2007, when 63 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for a non-theist.

Similarly, a Gallup poll in June found that 58 percent of Americans said they’d vote for “an atheist” for president — a low number, to be sure, but significantly higher than the 49 percent who said they’d vote for an atheist in 1999, not to mention the 18 percent who said so in 1958.

And that number will probably continue to rise. It’s older people who are most resistant to a non-religious president, while young people have much less of a problem with it. And most importantly, the ranks of secular people are growing. This is probably the most significant development in American religious life in recent years; the ranks of what are sometimes called the “Nones” — those who claim no religious affiliation — have exploded in recent years. According to Pew’s data, the Nones went from 16 percent of the population to 23 percent just between 2007 and 2014, and they too are more heavily concentrated among the young, while the oldest generation is the most religious.

It’s important to note that many of these people with no religious affiliation don’t call themselves atheists, and many say they believe in some version of God; there’s plenty of diversity within that group. But they constitute a growing portion of the electorate for whom religion isn’t all that important and who don’t demand candidates whose religious views mirror theirs. And they make up a significant portion of the Democratic electorate.

All that means that over time the chances of one of the two parties nominating someone who doesn’t believe in God will continue to rise. It will probably be a Democrat, and it might be a Jew, since atheism may go down a bit easier with a candidate who simultaneously has membership in a religious group (since Judaism is a religion but also a cultural affiliation born of tradition and heritage, many Jews comfortably think of themselves as both Jewish and atheist).

To come back to where we started, I may have my own suspicions about what Bernie Sanders believes deep in his heart. But his rather broad conception of God not as a guy with a long beard sitting on a cloud but as a force running through all living things — in other words, something that doesn’t punish you for your sins or hear your request for a good grade on your algebra exam — is still at odds with what most Americans believe. But to his voters, and most in the Democratic Party, it just isn’t all that important. His candidacy isn’t based on an argument that Sanders is just like you; rather, it’s trying to be a movement of those fed up with the fundamental course of American politics. There are many reasons why you might not support Sanders, but he could help make the idea of a non-religious candidate less controversial and anomalous.

And consider this: if Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination, the party of religious Christians will have nominated someone of laughably insincere religious belief. Despite his claim that he finds the Bible to be an even greater book than The Art of the Deal, Trump doesn’t appear to believe anything even vaguely related to Christianity (among other things, he’s such a high-quality performer at life that he has never asked God for forgiveness). So while a candidate’s faith still matters a great deal to many people, maybe the 2016 election will find voters in both parties relatively unconcerned with whether their favored candidate worships — or doesn’t — in the same way they do.


By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, January 28, 2016

January 29, 2016 Posted by | Atheism, Bernie Sanders, Religious Beliefs | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Politics Of The Nones”: The Demographic That Should Keep Rove Awake At Night

Imagine a demographic that has doubled its share of the population over the past two decades, is up by 25 percent over the past four years, and now accounts for as many as one in five Americans. Imagine that this demographic votes disproportionately for one political party—to the tune of 70 percent for Obama versus 26 percent for Romney in the 2012 election. Sounds like a demographic that ought to be of interest to politicians, journalists, and activists, right?

That demographic consists of people who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or religiously unaffiliated—the “nones,” as they’re sometimes called. And it hasn’t attracted anywhere near the attention it deserves in the postgame analysis of the 2012 election.

A quick Google search turns up 64,000 results concerning the GOP’s “Latino problem” that became evident in exit poll data on Election Day. Latinos represented around 10 percent of the electorate in 2011, up from nine percent in 2008, and they voted for Obama at a rate of 71 percent. But it’s the nones that should be keeping Karl Rove up at night. Pew put them at 12 percent of the electorate in its exit poll data, and at 19.6 percent in its earlier general survey. (The difference appears to have more to do with polling methodology than with voting habits.)

The Public Religion Research Institute, in a study published on November 15, pegs the religiously unaffiliated at 16 percent of the electorate—and they figure that 78 percent of the category went for Obama. Crucially, like Latinos, the nones are young. One in three Americans under 30 are religiously unaffiliated—four times the rate for the over-65 cohort that keeps Rove in business. This isn’t a trickle, it’s a tsunami.

Google also shows that there’s no shortage of interest in the Republican Party’s “white problem.” The white electorate, long the bread-and-butter of Republican victories, has declined from 81 percent in 2000 to 72 percent in 2012. But if you look under the hood, the Republicans’ white problem is worse than these numbers suggest. For one thing, Romney’s white majority mostly came from racking up huge margins among Southern and rural whites, while Obama actually captured majorities of whites in many blue states and blue urban areas.

The most interesting way to divide whites in America, however, may not be by region, but by religion—or lack thereof. White evangelicals, according to Pew, were as red in 2012 as they’ve ever been. They went 78 percent for Romney, up from 74 percent for McCain. The bad news for the Republicans is that, according to Pew, the evangelical share of the population continues to erode—from 21 percent in 2007 to 19 percent in 2012—while the number of the religiously unaffiliated is rising—from 16 percent to 20 percent over the same period. In other words, “nones” and evangelicals are equivalent in numbers.

One explanation for this change in America’s religious complexion is that white Christians are aging: 72 percent of voters over 65 are white Christians, compared to only 26 percent of voters under 30. Pew also tells us that most of the unaffiliated are white—and that much of their growth has come from the white population. That said, lack of religious affiliation is also common among Asian Americans: while 42 percent of Asian Americans identify as Christian, 26 percent report themselves as religiously unaffiliated, in a significant increase over the general population, and 73 percent of Asian Americans voted for Obama.

Like any group of this size, the religiously unaffiliated aren’t monolithic. About a third self-identify as atheists, while the rest say they are agnostic, “spiritual but not religious,” or simply uninterested in religion. They are spread fairly evenly across education and income levels. And they’re politically diverse when it comes to economic ideas. But they do seem to largely agree on one thing: that mixing religion with politics is a bad idea.

Which brings me back to the recent election. If the statistical data seem unreliable, just think back on the extraordinary nature of the debate in 2012. Never before have the culture wars been fought so forcefully on both sides. While the spectacle of Republicans declaring holy war has become old hat, this was the first election in which one of the parties explicitly endorsed same-sex marriage; this was the first election in which one party defended a woman’s right to reproductive freedom without apology or hesitation; and this season also saw the passage of a number of same-sex marriage ballot initiatives, as well as the election of the nation’s first openly lesbian senator.

Some on the right could scarcely believe that this is what America really wants. “Millions of Americans looked evil in the eye and adopted it,” wrote Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver in his post-election commentary. He has a point—except that, for the majority of Americans, the “evil” they looked in the eye was the one they rejected on November 6. Others on the right, like the Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, did get it: “It’s not that our message—we think abortion is wrong, we think same-sex marriage is wrong—didn’t get out. It did get out… It’s that the entire moral landscape has changed. An increasingly secularized America understands our positions, and has rejected them.”

So why haven’t the “nones” gotten the political respect they deserve? Part of the answer is that discrimination against nonbelievers—a large portion of the unaffiliated—remains an acceptable form of bigotry. More than half of Americans continue to say that they would never vote for an atheist for president—many more than will cop to being unwilling to vote for a black or gay person. Politicians are reluctant to associate themselves with such a seemingly toxic group.

The other part of the problem has more to do with a failure of the imagination on both sides of the religious divide. “Nones” (as that unfortunate label suggests) are typically represented by what they are not. They—or at least many of them—do not believe in God, they are charged with lacking “values,” and are suspected of not really being American. But this is nonsense. The unaffiliated do have beliefs, just not necessarily about theistic entities; they have just as many “values” as any other group; and their presence is firmly rooted in American history in helping create the world’s first secular republic.

Although the unaffiliated should not be conflated with atheists, it’s worth concentrating on them as they’re clearly the most feared subcategory. When atheists support same-sex marriage, for example, it’s not because they don’t believe in marriage, it’s because they believe in love and commitment. When they insist on removing creationism from public school curricula, it’s because they believe in the power of science and reason to improve the human condition. And if one should really need proof that atheists are as moral as any other group, they can call in some studies, or look at the growing body of research suggesting that humans’ sense of morality is hardwired and innate.

The politics of the nones in America remains to be written. This diverse group seems united primarily in its members’ opposition to the toxic blurring of religion and government. But if trends continue, perhaps we can look forward to the day when the word “values” is no longer used in political campaigns as a code word for bigotry.


By: Katherine Stewart, Religion Dispatches, November 26, 2012

November 28, 2012 Posted by | Politics, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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